Cold realities and a warm escape

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Winter had been noncommittal as I wrote this in early January. When I walked the docks at Tidewater Marina, the obligatory give-and-take about the weather was still typical of early cold-season banter — a lot of If it doesn’t get any colder than this, it’ll be a nice winter and As long as it doesn’t snow, I’m happy.

Peter Bass

Stragglers were still heading down the Ditch.

A couple in a new MJM 50z paused here for a day or two on their race from New England toward the sun. It looked like a great late-season ride, with its heated helm deck and gyro stabilizer.

The following week, a big change loomed. We Northern transplants feel as if we’ve beaten the system if daytime lows stay at least in the mid-40s. However, it looked as if we would have highs near freezing and nights in the low 20s. Sounds too much like New England. At least the boat business takes me to Florida a couple of times in midwinter (more on that in a bit), and I have the consolation of knowing that by the cover date of this issue, the daffodils should be popping up around here.

One fish, two fish

A couple of months ago I reported that the Mid-Atlantic Rockfish Shootout had been backed up into December to allow fishing inside the Bay. The strategy worked. Enough fish were caught to have a good leaderboard. The tournament also allowed live-bait fishing, so a number of 40-plus-pounders were caught, probably with eels.

The winter season is underway, which allows fishing out to 3 miles from the beach but not in the Bay. There seems to be little activity within the 3-mile zone, and new regulations have dropped the take from two to one fish a day, which is affecting booking with guides in Virginia Beach and on the Eastern Shore.

It was hard enough, given the difficulty of finding fish inshore. With the change, even anglers who are willing to take the gamble that they might catch a fish inside 3 miles won’t make the trip for a one-fish limit. If you really care about the stock and its economic value, take a look at stripers forever.org and never kill a big fish. It is almost invariably a female and a successful breeder.

Where did your crab sleep last night?

My wife and I went to lunch at a local restaurant with the word “fish” in its name that also had a fishing pier. It’s a longtime local institution that seemed a good bet for local seafood. I ordered crab cakes, a signature dish of the Bay. They were tasteless and not particularly crabby. I inquired and learned that the crab was a pasteurized, Far Eastern product. Even in the blue crab capital of America, make no assumptions.

The low winter adternoon sun lights up the Panamax bulk carrier Arethusa on her way upriver for cargo.

A bipartisan group of federal lawmakers from Maryland and Virginia wrote President Obama last July and asked that his administration, as part of its effort to combat fishing and seafood fraud, look into the practice of importing, repacking and relabeling alien crab. This development followed a Washington Post report that said possibly one-third of all seafood sold in the United States is caught illegally.

A little poking around online found an article at washingtoncity paper.com with an interesting statistic: 43 million pounds of crab is imported into Maryland annually, and the state produces about 700,000 pounds. The article also quoted the chef of a noted restaurant that serves “Maryland” crab cakes as saying the bulk of its mix was from Indonesia, with a little Maryland mixed in. He defended the Maryland label by saying the crab cakes were made in the “Maryland style.” Perhaps restaurants should have a bottle of Bay crab essence on tables to sprinkle on alien crabs for real crab flavor. Bam!

Après le déluge, moi (sorry, Louis XV)

Just as the flood of south-bounders ebbed, my turn arrived. Some old friends from Maine were looking for a particular boat, which we found with the help of a Florida broker. This occasioned a trip south to survey the boat and conclude a sale, followed by a visit with my youngest daughter, who lives in St. Petersburg.

My children spent summers messing around in a great variety of boats, from canoes to trawlers to cruising sailboats. We found places for them to take sailing lessons and hoped they would make boating a life sport, as it has been for us. It seems to have worked. The oldest is a paddle-sports nut, the middle has a 100-ton license, in addition to a law degree, and the youngest joined the community sailing program in St. Pete and goes sailing whenever she can. Funny how things work out.

Back to my turn in the sun: The Florida trip was a nice break and reminded me of an adage I read in a boating magazine once: “The best way to winterize your boat is to take it south.” Works for these old bones, as well. The only downside was the gaff I had to take from my colleagues at the marina for skipping out on a cold snap at Mile Zero. It’s a cross I was willing to bear.

Today at Mile Zero

Except for the odd snowbird who stayed in the Bay for the holidays and was scurrying south, the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth offers the usual parade of commercial traffic. The past week has been fun: several large bulk carriers heading upstream to load or unload and a ferry and fish-processing vessel bound for the shipyards on the Eastern Branch.

The winter has other charms, as well. The low sun lights passing ships as they make a late-afternoon transit up the river and can make even an amateur like me pretend to be a photographer. What was that story about the blind squirrel?

It’s never dull here at Mile Zero. See you at the bottom of the Bay, the top of the Ditch.

March 2015 issue